By G.W. Thomas
It’s funny what you get remembered for. My most famous piece in terms of reader response, links and general hubbub is called “Writing Flash Fiction.” I never received a nickel for it, but promotion is part of the game. That was why I published FLASHSHOT, a daily newsletter of micro-fiction for ten years. In that time, I learned a few tricks to writing a story 100 words long:
1. Use the small idea – find a smaller idea in a larger one. War is a massive concept, but one man in a trench is a smaller idea.
2. Bury the preamble in the opening – set it up quick and follow through. If the story is about a man in a tree, just say that.
3. Start in the middle of the action – imply the first part of the story by relying on clichés and prop situations. A man is standing in a Western street as the sun hits noon. You know what’s coming.
4. Focus on one powerful image – create one brilliant picture. Like a poem, you can spend your 100 words describing something special, but, to be a story, you must at least suggest a plot, an event, some action.
5. Make the reader guess until the end – don’t give it away until the last sentence. Twist endings are popular for this reason. (Lovecraftian italics are optional.)
6. Use allusive references – use allusions to other stories for a shortcut. Hamlet is talking with his dad the ghost. You don’t have to explain you’re in Denmark, that Hamlet is a flawed man, or that his father’s ghost is haunting him. We’ve read or seen that play. Now change something.
This piece is going to go beyond mere flash and will show how to write, specifically, a “Mythos” version of micro-fiction. All the usual advice still applies, but we are going to look at how you tell a Mythos tale in just a quick, short shock. Doesn’t seem possible, does it, when you consider HPL’s shortest pieces like “Azathoth” were still 460 words or more and his longest were 51,000 word novellas like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward? But it can be done. Here’s how.
One of micro-fiction’s best tricks is that it can refer to older stories that are known to the reader. You can take a classic scenario such as Robert Bloch used in “The Shambler From the Stars” or Robert E. Howard in “The Thing on the Roof” (a party of men witness the bad Mythos end of a friend) and rework it. You don’t have to explain everything because the Mythos fan is already familiar with tales of this sort. What you don’t say is as important as what you do.
Dennistoun had stopped moving. Jones wanted to apply first aid, but our friend had forbidden us from attempting any rescue. All we could do was watch.
It started with a row of finger-long, black spikes biting through his skin, then a loud, leathery rip.
His back opened and the bones of his spine separated like a snake.
The ropy entity pulsed, thickened, whipped around as it grew black, shiny limbs.
The creature was blacker than space, faceless, and flapping membranes, wet wings.
It looked at us once in wordless thanks then flew off, leaving us with Dennistoun’s melting corpse….
Twist endings are always good. They really are the most common tool for micro-fiction because they spark a reaction in the reader, despite the shortness of the piece. You set up an expectation, then pull the rug out from under the reader’s feet. It’s an old, time-honored device, going back to the caves but perfected by writers like Saki, John Collier and O. Henry.
They had heard about “The Cat Lady” through neighbor complaints. The flower beds on Ripley Street were bare of geraniums due to the hundreds of wandering cats.
The three workers who came to take away the cats – to destroy the diseased and starving animals – had seen this kind of woman before: unable to give up even one kitten, she held all of them in a kind of living Hell.
What they couldn’t explain was the altar in the bedroom, adorned with the strange octopoid figure, and the desiccated carcasses offered in sacrifice.
A play on words can give your title double meaning. This helps with the twist because the reader expects one thing, but the second meaning kicks in, bites you in the asterisk. Robert Bloch loved to use these kinds of titles. “Dig, That Crazy Grave,” “The Plot Is the Thing” and “Final Performance,” for instance.
Jimmy had gone from a small-time nobody to the head of a major corporation in only three years. His wife, Loreena, had had to make many small sacrifices along the way. Their honeymoon to Hawaii, gone. Even small things like dinner most nights, gone.
But not this. She would not sacrifice this. She had found the valentine in his suit pocket. It was from his secretary, a blond creature with French tips and silicon implants.
Loreena bent over her cauldron and sang a chant to the Great Old Ones. She had made many small sacrifices here, too….
A similar trick is to play with a famous Mythos title, to change it slightly and therefore change its focus. Every Mythos fan knows “Call of Cthulhu,” but change one letter and the twist suggests itself.
BALL OF CTHULHU
The mystery boulder haunted the professor’s dreams. What was its arcane purpose? What did the eldritch cipher scrawled across its surface mean? They had unburied the stone sphere the day before, while excavating some ruins in Ponape.
Was it a sacrificial altar? Had screaming victims been draped across it before being blooded? Or was it the center of a circle of chanting worshippers, naked on some Walpurgis Night? Would he ever know? The mystery was driving him insane!
Too bad he could not see how Cthulhu had lost his cyclopean plaything millennia ago when he was just a little squid….
Make the story self-referential and you bring the fun right into the reader’s lap. Make them part of the story….
FOUND ON YOUR DOORSTEP BY MISTAKE
I hate you! And you die, John Carrington. Buried in the last two sentences on this slip of paper was the Curse of Yugonatlac: “N’w I hv kd y’u.” The Great Old One, Yar’Ganash, will appear before the next moonrise and consume you. I’ve killed you at last, you bastard. I will never forgive you for what you did that night in Kingsport and what you did to my darling, Natalie. Die! I know you’re not smart enough to have deflected this curse onto some unsuspecting fool….
If you’re feeling a little more traditional, you can use references to Mythos creatures, places and characters to add to an otherwise un-Mythos plot, much as writers have done since August Derleth. Here, I’ve used ghost pirates, nothing new, even when William Hope Hodgson wrote about them back in 1909. The Mythos elements add color and just a little more powder to your cannon.
The townfolk could see the old Union flag above the creaking boards of the Dagon. Every child in Kingsport knew the old stories about the lost ship, the deadly storm, and the merchants and longshoremen who refused to man the boats and save the whalers. Those men had been their grand-parents’ grand-parents.
The spectators could make out the barnacled hull, the rusty anchor chain. But it was the white of bones they watched as the ship drifted dockside on the incoming tide. Bleached knuckles clutched axes, pole-arms and sabers, while empty eye sockets gleamed with cold, patient deliberation.
Sometimes, you just have a story that is Mythos and it’s short. No tricks. It’s just not that long. Usually because most of what you’re saying is left unsaid. These types of stories aren’t really stories, per se, so much as a sharp, weird image that suggests much more than it tells. You could flesh it out, but it would mutate into something else.
A THING CALLED LOVE
Old Man Anderson’s last words were: “When the Stars are right – you’ll find Love in the barn.” No one knew what the farmer had meant, but word of the abandoned hayloft spread quickly. Boys trying to score would bring their sweethearts there, hoping to find “Love.” They didn’t care if the stars were right. Until Johnny Pelham and Cindy Danforth disappeared. Then Juan Vasquez and Rita French. Now, the kids talk of the thing with many heads that lives beneath the straw, that whispers sweet nothings.
The last type of tale is one I don’t partake in often, that of parody. It is easy to poke fun at Mythos conventions and you certainly are free to do so. I tend to avoid it because it makes it harder to accomplish the act of suspending your disbelief in future. At the same time, it can serve as a reminder to avoid the worst props of the genre.
WARREN’S MISSING MANUSCRIPT
Randolph Carter thought the ghouls had killed me…the truth was worse.
Once I had stepped into that grave, I was pulled down dark tunnels until I thought I’d suffocate under the sheer weight of the earth.
When we stopped, I felt more than saw that I was in a chamber. There are books here and I write on a torn page in my own blood.
For the ghouls fled meeping after they delivered me. Something comes, something even ghouls fear. Oh, my God, it’s terrible. It opens itself to take me. Aaaahhhhhh….(I dropped my pencil)…aaaaaaah!
One last warning: Writing these short tales is addictive. Don’t be surprised when you turn around and see you’ve written a hundred of them. Have fun!